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Memory (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021, Thailand / Colombia)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

Yesterday a stone fell outside

That the pitcher will only throw now

It is his duty to make change, it is his duty to put in motion

Agabê, Douglas Germano

           First, a dark room with closed curtains. Everything is static. Time passes while we look at this grim fresco of still life, that also shows an indistinguishable dark spot draught in the inferior corner of the screen. A sudden sound, loud and unclear, interrupts the contemplation, and the spot moves; it was a sleeping woman that just woke up. Despite not being aware of it, we were watching her sleep. Soon, we move to a parking lot at night. A slow traveling in, seemingly unmotivated, shows a couple of parked cars. Now they are the ones sleeping. The alarm sets off and one of them ‘wakes up’. Afterwards, the other machines also awaken. As unexplainable as the camera movement itself was this something peculiar that set the alarm off. Was it an invisible ghost crossing the place, or was precisely this camera movement, suggesting our presence as observers? Everything then goes silent when the camera stops again, and we find ourselves in another room, at a hospital. It is already morning, the curtains are open, and the same woman from before sits now on a chair in front of the bed of another, who is also sleeping. As we had done with her - the voyeur - before, she now observes the sleep of her sister, only a little muddled by her cell phone (a metalinguistic mention standing for the audience?). “It is so good to watch you sleep”, she comments while the other awakes. This three-scene preamble will also link with a future scene, when the same Jessica (Tilda Swinton) sees the future older version of Hernán (Elkin Diáz) sleeping next to a river – and us, with her – through almost ten minutes of the movie. 

            To sleep is a strong metaphor for cinema. I don’t mean actual sleeping, in the screening room, of course. I mean, the double-edged sword that is the mystical immersive sleep, and it is not by chance that one of the political modernism mottos was to wake up the audience from the diegesis dream. Here, however, it is about being awake to observe the sleep of others. Through sophisticated observational mechanisms of decoupage, this scenes puts in question the spectatorial relationship with the wait and presence that is watching someone sleep. It is obvious that Apichatpong Weerasethakul evokes Warhol’s Sleep (1966), one of his favorite artists, and his more radical experiments with time. But another rememberance, the strange sensation of deja vu, brings to mind the austere observation of another sleep, far more silent – or better, fundamentally silent – the one from the somnambulistic wife of Nosferatu’s main character. In her dreams and visions, the telepathic threats of the vampire appears; the one who is, since Bram Stoker’s publication, the narrative metaphor for the spectral conditions of technical reproduction. He communicates and intervenes from miles and miles of distance, imposing his will on those who sleep in the same way as film art, in the early 20th century, imposed its images over equidistant masses of people. This speed was everything, and because of it, the bourgeois real-state agent could never, under any hypothesis, arrive before this vampire, who can do anything in a single cut. Murnau’s motto has always been that of the ‘too late’, and the small-town botanist from Nosferatu said something about it to the leading character, in an en passant title card, that it's not worth rushing things, because it is impossible to escape fate. There it is: the great theme of Murnau’s tragic work was this mystic call, almost Charonian, of images that act faster than feet; their telepathic influence that transfigures those who watch them before it is possible to stop them, and precisely because of that, they become a representation of fate – in Tabu’s boat or Sunrise’s storm, for example – the same impossibility of escaping fate that lead the director himself to an early death. But what sparks the memory of the greatest silent filmmaker while watching another one who, film by film, ensures his place on the pantheon of this millennium’s greatest? Because the same invocation that in a silent movie of the early 20th century didn't allow a somnambulist to sleep in peace, on this 21st century one was turned into a sound effect. 

            Everything in Memoria is permeated by a ‘sonophilic’ impulse, but the fun is that this word can have an involuntary double-meaning (seemingly, their etymology is very diverse) as a reference to the act of sleep or their loudness. The movie’s main character suffers from insomnia – we follow her expression of degradation grow increasingly throughout the film – and one of the reasons for it is because she constantly listens to an indistinct sound. At first, this sound is experienced as a kind of sickness, invading her day-to-day routine and getting in the way of her establishing basic relationships. It is not a simple and casual fantasy element, as the most usual critical description of Apichatpong’s oeuvre often suggests when he resorts to something like this. The beauty of the fantastic here is that it arrives as an intrusion into the daily-life style that the filmmaker installs as he shoots the main character wandering through Medellin, waiting for the cure for her sister, who is also sick, but in another way. It's a kind of magical tearing of reality’s velcro, but it happens as a disorienting call of something that co-exists in this very same world, anesthetized, lobotomized, repressed; very well represented in the scene when the religious doctor, a Salvador Dali fan, refuses to prescribe Xanax so her patient doesn’t lose access to this world’s beauty and sadness. Apichatpong’s representations are so much 'spells that turn against its casters’ as the ones from Buñuel or Artaud, but they are not born from sexual desires or social unconscious, they are not representations who shock. It is a simple sound. A very material call from the beyond. 

            But where does this sound, that solidifies the path to a future meeting, come from? This voice of another, anticipating the secret account that is to come? At first, this seems to matter far less to the main character than finding a way to eliminate it and go back to sleep. She tries to give it a shape with the help of young sound technician, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), in the long scene where they work towards modulating the sound into something tangible. This scene is important; or better said, the meeting with both Hernáns are important, because while the first and younger helps her to materialize digitally something mental and subjective, the second, older, indicate its origin, describing the hearing as an antenna reception of a bodyless voice freed into the world – no wonder that the movie metaphor used for it is of a sound technology that is not digital, but of mechanical reproduction, the radio. The two magic-techniques are put side-by-side, comparatively, as often Apichatpong has done. 

            This simple ‘everydayness' of the waking life, stripped of any fantasy elements, that she fights hard for, at first, to keep alive against the sound that torments her, has a name: realism. It is not only realism as an image index – that one which at the dawn of the modern era made believe that the visible field was the proof of the world -, but it as an artistic tradition, naturalism, of European origins, enclosed in the art and literature of the 19th century. Jéssica is a British woman who has lived for some time in Colombia, an European in a Latin American or third-world country, as guilty of inhabiting the world that her ancestors colonized as Huppert in White Material, the Portuguese in Letters of War, or a number of other figures (there’s nothing new there) that we see in current European cinema. The bourgeois everydayness is cut short by the phantom weirdness at every sight of today’s cinema, from Haneke’s art-house to Rojas/Dutra horror movies. The days go on peacefully, then suddenly, and we don’t know why, one sleeps badly. It’d be too much to say that, in Colombia, Jéssica saw the effects of colonization and suffered the guilt that fit her ancestors. That’s not the case; nothing in the movie really suggests that. But the strange sound that interrupts the speculative tranquility of the real – this fragment of a secret report that her, as an antenna, picked-up out of the blue, and whose destination, like a somnambulist, she will be driven to -, tells her that many and many other possible worlds, other accounts  of it that could or could not come to be, and also those who survived death and became discreet ghosts, all of this may together live in one and the same ordinary image of the world. Stories that were repressed in the name of the math of unity; this calculated principle that allowed the bourgeois Nation-state to keep under submission different populations, under the aegis of a single ‘ordinary world’ – and in this sense, the parallel cutting in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as much as Griffith’s in Orphans of the Storm, two sphinxes of realism, don’t do much more than guarantee this very sleepyness and restore, on the frantic multiplicity and the fragmentation of experience imposed by the industrial modernity, the renewed end of difference that made cinema the arts’ greatest passive revolution.

            A sound needs to arise to disturb the sleep. But in this first shot of Memoria, it puts the static image in movement; and puts the scene into action. The sound represents the possibility of transgression in a century restricted by the excess of images, the age of ocularcentrism that commodified the visible field with the currency of the real and made every image worn, and made the weary eyes become photophobic. To say that hearing gains prevalence in current cinema is just to repeat another buzzword, but the greatest strength of Memoria – as it frequently happens with the more brilliant artists of their time – is to underline the important points and go to the heart of the matter, to give them the evidence of a final word. The sound that Jessica hears, its irresistible call that, at first, don’t seem like more than an annoyance, is what will lead eventually to the movement of narrative dissociation so usual in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies. It is on those sudden 'geography and time plot mutations' that the filmmaker imposes his worldview. As he had done in many of his early features, the Thai director splits his narrative in two, sometimes displacing it in a more radical manner (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, etc.), sometimes slowly moving his characters to new situations, and making use of the apportionment to produce mirroring relationships of what was seen at every moment. Like in Blissfully Yours, we move here from the big city excitement to a ‘turn to the countryside”, with nature becoming more present, but not to the point of making it a shock with what we saw before (because simple oppositions between nature and civilization, country and city, modernity and tradition, don’t exist in Apichatpong’s holistic worldview – in ‘modernity' nature is contained in a gallery winter garden, in the ‘archaic site’, an alien spaceship springs from the deep jungle). 

                What is experienced as a fruit of depression and anxiety in Memoria’s first half, finds synergy and wonderment in the second. The reencounter with the missing Hernán, now older, this alien who doesn’t dream (because he represses nothing) will drive her to scan the world and things in another way. The slow pace, the peaceful, lightly unrolling of time and the mysterious drama that coexisted with a more naturalist dynamic in the earlier part now explodes, in one of the most impressive rhythmic and scenic conductions seen on film history. The stream flows, the trees shake to the cricket sounds. Two people from a small town, stopped by the small door of a tent, where there is a hanged banana bunch, loose their gaze. The soldier awaits. An alien spaceship flies and disappears. Time flows with its theogonic tranquility. If the clothes in Ozu’s lines tell us, “well, the world and time keep moving on with no worries for your personal drama”, the dark clouds that tremble in Memoria’s sky tell us less of an apathetic God and more of a polytheist time, freed of any chains, that allows and embraces everything, because its world is the synchronic world of many worlds – where statues, skulls and stones have memories, possible speeches and universes contained in their own interiority, as do ghosts, cars and aircrafts. There’s no unified realist art form that resists; or better saying, realism is simply to see more than everything. The Thai filmmaker's greatest virtue is to allow us to simulate with such intensity this same perception. One only needs not to sleep to see. It is what the dry thump of the falling ball came to show Jessica. It came to show her the way, crossing into her ears even before the stone that made its echo could be thrown.

October, 2022

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